With its romantic coastline, inviting beaches and reliable sunshine, southern France’s Riviera region has been a tourist destination since the 1860s. A hundred years ago, aristocrats from London to Moscow flocked here to socialize, gamble and escape the dreary weather at home. But the area also attracted a who’s who of 20th-century artists, who were drawn by the Mediterranean’s bohemian atmosphere, luminous light and contrasting colors of sea, sand and sky.
The legacies of the many artists who worked in the south — including Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Georges Braque, Raoul Dufy, Fernand Leger and Pablo Picasso — are memorialized today in an intriguing collection of local museums. And visiting them is easy, without the long lines and crowds of other major museums (leaving you plenty of time for the beach). Here are some highlights:
Renoir Museum, Cagnes-sur-Mer: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, whose Impressionist paintings straddled the turn of the last century, built a house and workshop for himself in Cagnes-sur-Mer in 1907. By then an old man, Renoir would spend his last 12 years in this little village (halfway between Nice and Antibes), happily tending his fruit trees, painting in his studio and dabbling in sculpture. Visitors see his atelier, with his easel and palette still in place (as well as his wheelchair and canes), and some original paintings (www.cagnes-tourisme.com).
Matisse Museum, Nice: Henri Matisse, the master colorist, first came to Nice in 1917, leaving behind financial struggles and a difficult marriage in Paris. He would remain in the Riviera, on and off, until his death in 1954. Though this museum’s collection is slender, you’ll see typical examples of his favorite motifs (flowers, fruit, female nudes) as well as his love of decorative patterns and joyful color (www.musee-matisse-nice.org).
Chagall Museum, Nice: Marc Chagall settled in the Riviera after World War II. His best-known paintings feature a magical realistic style that conjures up his native Russia, with fiddlers on roofs and horses in flight. Chagall had a hand in designing this delightful museum, which includes his Biblical Message cycle: 17 large luminous canvases on biblical themes, painted in bright reds, blues and greens that manage to combine aspects of his Russian/Jewish heritage with the Christian message (www.musees-nationaux-alpesmaritimes.fr).
Picasso Museum, Antibes: Pablo Picasso, the pioneer of cubism, summered on the Riviera nearly every year from 1919 until he died in 1973 — with the exception of World War II. But in 1946 he returned to Antibes, on the coast, where he spent a productive part of a year working in the town’s landmark Chateau Grimaldi. Forced to improvise his materials after the shortages of the war years, but elated by the newfound peace (and a new girlfriend), Picasso produced an amazing volume of celebratory, colorful artworks. The compact museum now housed in the Grimaldi offers a manageable look at the paintings and sketches Picasso made there (www.antibes-juanlespins.com/culture/musee-picasso).
Picasso Museum, Vallauris: After his sabbatical in Antibes, Picasso moved on to Vallauris, a typical Riviera village midway between Antibes and Cannes. The little town was home to several active art potteries, and Picasso became so enamored by the ceramics he saw that he resolved to take up clay as a medium. He ended up staying in Vallauris until 1955, and the museum there is a good place to become acquainted with his playful approach to ceramic art (www.musee-picasso-vallauris.fr).
Maeght Foundation, St. Paul de Vence: This inviting, private museum, situated just above the inland town of St. Paul de Vence, offers an excellent introduction to modern Mediterranean art. Its founder, the Parisian art dealer Aime Maeght, purchased an arid hilltop in the 1960s, planted it with 35,000 trees and shrubs and hired the Catalan architect Jose Luis Sert to design a museum for his collection. Today it gathers the work of many famous modern artists (Fernand Leger, Joan Miro, Alexander Calder, Georges Braque, Marc Chagall) under one roof. The lovely setting, with a verdant sculpture garden, is a bonus (www.fondation-maeght.com).
Matisse Rosary Chapel, Vence: Matisse convalesced from cancer surgery in 1941 with the help of a Dominican nun, and years later, in 1949, he repaid the favor by designing this tiny chapel in the hills above Nice. Deceptively simple, the chapel is tiled in plain white, with a few black-on-white line drawings (one depicts St. Dominic). But yellow, green and blue stained-glass windows filter the sunlight, creating a cheery dance across the walls — expressing Matisse’s irrepressible love of life. It’s a space of light and calm that only a master could have created (www.chapellematisse.fr).
Thanks to these diverse museums, the Riviera has a cultural richness that’s not typical of resort areas. The collections reflect the congenial joie de vivre of southern France: The playfulness, freedom, color and beauty that inspires artists to this day.